The licenses cover HP's JVM (Java virtual machine), a technology that allows Java to run on all different kinds of computers. The licensees produce real-time operating systems, or RTOS, software that is designed to respond much more quickly to commands than standard operating systems such as Windows or the Macintosh OS. RTOSes are typically found in the so-called embedded market, made up of consumer electronics devices and also industrial equipment.
The appeal of HP's virtual machine lies in the comparatively favorable terms that HP is offering licensees, said Byron Ryono, director of marketing for embedded software technology at HP. The technology essentially gives software vendors and device makers a way to obtain Java technology without paying, licensing, or meeting other conditions imposed by Sun Microsystems.
To get access to Sun's JVM, developers have to pay various fees and do not have much say in the development process, a stringent set of circumstances that Ryono compared to a poll tax. Sun has not certified HP's version of the JVM, but HP maintains that it complies with the public specifications for Java.
The four companies will start to include HP's JVM in their RTOS products toward the middle of the year, and equipment incorporating RTOSes with the HP virtual machine will come out toward the fall, after the four HP licensees sign similar agreements with their device customers, according to William Woo, director of engineering for embedded systems at HP.
Devices powered by an RTOS can be monitored on a network. By incorporating a virtual machine, data from RTOS-powered equipment will be more compatible with other devices, allowing better overall control of different devices.
The introduction of Java to the embedded market could be a watershed moment. Embedded software and hardware developers employ a multiplicity of languages. As a result, a given application cannot be used across the panoply of hardware offerings. But Java would end this balkanization.
"Java should be capable of bringing a lot of sanity to the market," said Tim Sloane, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group.
Sloane added that HP's more flexible approach is probably the reason behind its surge in popularity. HP is licensing its product to the RTOS vendors, who are then free to negotiate deals with their own partners. Sun, by contrast, has tried to stay involved at each step in the product development chain.
"I don't think Sun's licensing arrangements were as flexible," he said. "HP was willing to negotiate and cut deals."
"Because we are an embedded device manufacturer ourselves, we understand the sensitivities and we have converted these sensitivities into business terms," Ryono said. "We are competing from a business point of view."
"They [licensees] will vote with their wallet," said HP's Woo.
The licensing deals are not exclusive, he added. More than one of the licensees has signed similar agreements with Sun.
While Intel and Wind River have not signed licensing deals, the endorsement means that the companies are interested in the technology and that negotiations are underway. "There are different time frames," he said. In addition, HP is negotiating with a number of manufacturers who use proprietary versions of RTOSes.
Ryono would not state the financial terms of the licensing deal, but admitted that HP is charging the licensees for the technology.